When Eric Dickerson walked into the Indianapolis Colts' training camp on July 18, even those who knew him best did a double take. What a specimen! In a tank top, Dickerson's upper body appeared to be chiseled out of marble, and his legs looked like steel pistons. In addition to stepping up his weightlifting regimen, Dickerson explained, he had spent a chunk of the off-season, in Houston's oppressive heat, running up a 40-yard patch of artificial turf that was pitched at a 45-degree angle.
"He looks greater than I've ever seen him," says Indy coach Ron Meyer, who also was Dickerson's coach for three years at SMU. "What a perfect body."
There's one other noticeable change in Dickerson's appearance: the smile. In his eight previous NFL seasons, the broad grin was repeatedly wiped from his face by contract disputes, charges that he was malingering, a bitter split with the Los Angeles Rams, the inexperience of the Colts' offensive linemen and his endless harping that he should be paid more than any other running back in the league. Rickey Henderson has got nothing on this guy. And agents? Dickerson has had 10, including himself.
Now, though, the smile hardly ever leaves his face, and with good reason. The Colts have shown enormous faith in the 6'3", 224-pound Dickerson, who this time last year was holding out and ripping everyone in the Indianapolis organization, in an attempt to get traded to a team that would pay him top dollar. Eventually, however, the Colts came around and signed him to a four-year, $10.65 million deal that kicks in this season. So for now—and just for now, because nothing is forever with him—Dickerson is happy to be carrying the ball for the Colts.
"With a sport like football," Dickerson says, the quiet passion rising in his voice, "you have to love your job. Last year, I just didn't want to play—period. Now I'm content, very content. I eat, drink, breathe and sleep my job. It's the most I've looked forward to playing in the last five, six years."
Here are three reasons why:
•Money. Once while he was with the Rams, in the preseason of 1987, and once with the Colts, during the '89 season, Dickerson was led to believe by management that the club was willing to renegotiate his contract and make him the NFL's richest running back. On both occasions, according to Dickerson, the teams broke off negotiations just when it appeared that an agreement was near. He became embittered both times, so much so during the '87 season that the Rams couldn't take any more of his whining and shipped him to Indianapolis.
Last year, after Dickerson had bashed the Colts, refused to take a preseason physical and spent the first six weeks of the regular season suspended by the Colts for conduct detrimental to the team, general manager Jim Irsay made a huge and risky decision. In October he made Dickerson the highest-paid running back in NFL history. "The bottom line is that when Eric is healthy and happy, he's special," says Irsay. "I believe he'll go down as the best back ever. A healthy and happy Dickerson makes you a playoff team."
Different things make different guys happy, and Dickerson wasn't going to be happy until somebody made him the bestpaid back in the game. Even as he approaches his twilight—Dickerson turns 31 on Sept. 2—it's hard to argue with him. He has gained at least 1,200 yards in every one of his seven full seasons.
•Quarterback Jeff George. After having the likes of Gary Hogeboom and Jack Trudeau hand him the ball for three years, Dickerson wondered if the Colts would ever get a playoff-caliber quarterback. Last season they drafted one, George, and Dicker-son loves the guy. "Jeff can make my life a lot easier," Dickerson says. "I've played against a lot of eight- and nine-man fronts in my career. Teams play us to stop the run. I'm so sick of going into cities and hearing, "Stop Dickerson and you stop the Colts.' When you have a guy who can really throw it, they have to stand back and say, 'We can't let this guy beat us.' People think I'll be jealous of Jeff taking my so-called [starring] role. I laugh. I love it. He's the future."